We need to tread carefully in this mysterious 'Nazi gold' rush Don't make the Swiss scapegoats for this misguided furore over Nazi gold

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Many years ago, the West German banks decided to demystify gold. The idea was to be "American" and casual about it: the stuff should be sold across the counter like any other commodity.

So little showcases and window displays appeared in every bank. There was usually a nicely-lit replica of the Nefertiti bust, and around her an artful scatter of gleaming nuggets. One Hamburg bank I knew took the supermarket ethic literally and offered its customers potatoes - complete with eyes and bumps - made of solid gold. The slogan was "Gold - Timeless and Beautiful".

But the uproar about Nazi gold in Switzerland shows the futility of proclaiming that gold is just a yellow metal. Nobody wants to believe it. A dense fog of superstition surrounds gold, which is assigned magical properties normally associated with bottles of saint's blood or chips off the True Cross.

At the heart of the cult is the sense that a piece of gold - "timeless" and immune to corrosion - is a sort of reliquary of those who once owned it. Human beings die or are murdered, but a trace of their soul remains in the ingot, ring or coin they once possessed. It is as if scientists analysing fragments from some Zurich bank vault would find microscopic swastikas speckling its inner structure. More gravely, the search for looted "Jewish gold" draws some of its passion from a sense that this is more than mere property, that to abandon it would be to betray the last, shadowy presence of the Holocaust dead.

This makes me uneasy. It is not just that other forms of movable plunder do not attract the same emotions - witness the forthcoming sale in Vienna of art objects looted from Jews in the Nazi period, which is no more than a good, sensible project to benefit Jewish charities. It is not just the impossibility of assessing what proportion of the melted-down gold bars sent to Switzerland by the Reichsbank comes from Jewish sources. What makes me watchful is that the age-old prejudice which associates "the Jew" with gold is unintentionally being given new life - and by Jewish organisations whose mission is to combat anti-semitism.

When Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, a horrible goldrush took place. The site was invaded by hundreds of Poles with horses and carts, shovels and sieves, who proceeded to stake out claims and dig over the site of the vast Birkenau camp, the enclosure that contained the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria as well as deep deposits of human ash. Some even panned the waters of the Sola river, which runs past the outer fence. It was assumed that every Jew carried gold wherever he or she went, and that the approach of death would have induced the victims to hide their valuables from their executioners or bury them. And there was the hope of finding gold teeth missed by the SS and the Sonderkommando, as they pulled them out of fresh corpses and packed them for delivery to the Reichsbank.

Most Europeans, in those days, still associated urban Jews with workshop trades such as jewellery and goldsmithing. When bureaucracy forced Jewish families to adopt fixed surnames, a huge proportion of those names began with the word "Gold". Anti-semites fancied that the secret of Jewish "cosmopolitanism" was gold; they stuffed their bags with it - the only international currency - as they glided across frontiers.

But times were already changing. One of my own Jewish ancestors ran away from his father's goldwork bench to become a soldier and then a fashionable Christian doctor in Berlin. The professions of Europe gradually opened to Jews, and today the image of the Jew as goldsmith and gold-hoarder ought to be little more than a memory. Yet it hangs around, as formless and yet as pervasive as the bad breath of anti-semitism itself. The last thing the world needs is that the myth of the "Gold-Jew" should be encouraged.

Nobody can ever know the origins of the bar gold now in dispute. The ingots were usually re-smelted by the Reichsbank and stamped with false pre-war dates. But in all probability, most of the pounds 4.6bn- worth of "Nazi gold" in Swiss banks and the pounds 35m held by the Bank of England and the US Federal Reserve comes from non-Jewish sources, from stocks seized by the Nazis from the treasuries, banks and commercial houses of occupied Europe. Some of it must be melted-down Jewish property. A fraction probably did come from Auschwitz. But the loud claims now being made to this wealth seem almost to assert that all Nazi gold is Jewish gold. Claims like that are not true, and not wise either.

And there is something suspicious about the way that the "Nazi gold" affair has exploded across the British media. The facts, as several journalists have discovered to their surprise, have been available for years. I cannot understand how Elan Steinberg of the World Jewish Congress can say that "none of us had ever heard of 'Safehaven' ", the 1944 Allied programme to deprive Germany of overseas assets. As for the Foreign Office, more or less everything in last week's "Nazi gold" history notes was published in a 1972 report, to general indifference.

So, for some reason, everyone pretended last week to be thunderstruck by these non-revelations. Perhaps that reason had nothing much to do with Nazi gold or the energetic campaign launched by the World Jewish Congress. Instead, it was a pretext for yet another foul gush of the xenophobia that has been washing up and down Britain all this year. The Swiss are not such tempting targets for abuse as the bloody Germans. But they'll do.

I am not going to mount a general defence of Swiss behaviour, then or now. Switzerland refused entry to 40,000 Jewish refugees in the Second World War, and turned them back to their fate. Switzerland has grown fat on money extorted by the world's dictators from their victims. But let's ask for a moment who made Switzerland what it is.

The answer is that we did - we, the outside world who twice this century swamped the planet in blood but needed to keep one corner dry and safe. Neutral Switzerland allowed foreign intelligence services a safe house and a view across the barricades. It gave anti-Nazi resistance movements an airhole to the outside world.

Switzerland saved the bacon of a lot of businessmen dodging wartime controls, but it also saved the lives of thousands in blockaded countries whose governments covertly traded there to buy food and medical supplies. From Switzerland the Red Cross went to visit prisoners of war and (some) concentration camps. And in Switzerland, the emissaries of warring nations could meet secretly and take soundings for peace.

In other words, the world wars could not have been fought without Swiss neutrality. Europe would twice have choked in its own blood. And the price was Swiss immunity - not just to invasion, but to normal standards of morality and transparency. In order to do secret things in Switzerland, we, the outsiders, required a Switzerland entitled to keep secrets, barricaded in a selfishness which defended its society against all allurements - against crude threats but also desperate appeals to conscience.

The London Evening Standard rants that "during all Europe's agonies ... the Swiss stood aside, feigning a lofty disinterest while secretly grubbing for whatever tainted treasure they could lay their hands on". The Daily Mail calls Swiss bankers "chauvinistic, charmless and utterly without morals". Really? I think I recognise some of the features in that picture. But it's not a portrait of Switzerland. These are the faces of Major, Howard and Portillo - a mirror held up to Tory Britain and its pit-bull defenders. Let them bite their own reflections.